Misattribution and Repurposing the Captivity Trope: Teaching Louise Erdrich and Sherman Alexie with Mary Rowlandson’s The Sovereignty and Goodness of God

PALS Note: We are excited to have a guest post from Randi Tanglen on complicating the discussion of Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative through the work of two contemporary Native American poets. Tanglen is an Associate Professor of English and director of the faculty development and teaching center at Austin College. 

9780312111519I often teach Mary Rowlandson’s 1682 Indian captivity narrative The Sovereignty and Goodness of God in early American and American frontier literature classes. The narrative tells of Puritan Mary Rowlandson’s six-week captivity with the Narragansett and Wampanoag people of New England during King Phillip’s War in 1676. Very popular with British and colonial audiences alike, it went through four editions in its first year of publication and 23 editions by 1828. Today Rowlandson’s captivity narrative is heavily anthologized and regularly taught in a wide range of American literature courses as an example of Puritan spiritual autobiography and the Indian captivity narrative form. In my classes, I teach Rowlandson’s captivity narrative to demonstrate how the captivity trope and its anti-Indian rhetoric have been deployed in American literature and culture to justify the perceived rightness of usually white-provoked wars and the ideology of Manifest Destiny.

PALS contributor Corinna Cook recently discussed how she asks student to consider the ways in which “Native peoples draw on and similarly repurpose aesthetic patterns, literary tools, and textual practices of colonial origins.” So in order to illustrate what captivity narratives scholar Kathryn Zabelle Derounian-Stodola calls the “the complicated nexus of politics, cultures, identities, and ethnicities at the heart” of any captivity experience and its various depictions, I make it a priority to teach Native representations of and responses to the trope of captivity when I teach white accounts of Indian captivity. To that end, I teach two Native rejoinders to Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative after my classes have read it: Louise Erdrich’s (Chippewa) 1984 poem “Captivity” and Sherman Alexie’s (Spokane Coeur D’Alene) 1993 poem of the same title.

Both poems suggest that Rowlandson did not leave her captivity experience with the absolute certainty about white cultural superiority that the captivity trope tries to reinforce and thereby subvert the political purpose and cultural meaning of the colonialist captivity trope.

The Misattribution

Both poems open with an epigraphic misattribution that might prevent students from initially seeing the powerful ways in which both poems repurpose the captivity trope. With the exception of a few changed words, Erdrich’s and Alexie’s poems both begin with the same epigraphic quote ascribed to Rowlandson:

He (my captor) gave me a bisquit, which I put in my pocket, and not daring to eat it, buried it under a log, fearing he had put something in it to make me love him.

The epigraph goes on to credit the quote to “the narrative of the captivity of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, who was taken prisoner by the Wampanoag when Lancaster, Massachusetts was destroyed, in the year 1676.” My students, familiar with Rowlandson’s narrative, point out that this quote addresses some of Rowlandson’s most accentuated concerns: food and sexual vulnerability.

However, when students go back to look for the epigraphic quote that spurs the dramatic situation of both poems, they realize that it cannot be found anywhere in Rowlandson’s captivity narrative. This is because the epigraphic quote actually comes from the more obscure 1736 captivity narrative of a different Puritan captive named John Gyles, who wasn’t necessarily afraid of “loving” his Maliseet captors, but rather their French Jesuit allies. Although to a present-day audience these words may seem laced with erotic implications, the most literal meaning is that Gyles feared a priest would convert him to Catholicism.

Although it could be that Erdrich and Alexie (who seems to be writing in response to both Rowlandson and Erdrich) purposefully included the misattribution, students sometimes grapple with the inaccuracy. Once they know the origin of the epigraph, I asked the students to consider the following questions for class discussion and essay prompts:

  • Do you think the incorrect citation was intentional or an oversight by the poets?
  • What is the poetic effect of this “misattribution”?
  • What does this specific epigraph bring to each poem that would otherwise be lost?
  • Is there a quote from Rowlandson’s narrative that would serve as a more effective epigraph?
  • How does the epigraph help us see something new about Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative?
  • How does the epigraph contribute to the cultural work of each poem?
Erdrich’s Use of “Captivity”


Through John Gyles’s misattributed epigraph, Erdrich’s “Captivity” picks up on Rowlandson’s simultaneous desire for intimacy with and the fear of contamination by a Native other. Throughout the poem, a speaker in the voice of Rowlandson revisits scenes of her captivity, describing her repulsion to her captives’ culture, yet her attraction to the specific individuals within it. Early on, the speaker is able to “recognize [the] face” of her master, and is able to “distinguis[h] it from the othe[r]” “pitch devils.” Students usually note that even in the early lines of the poem, by discerning the sound of her master’s voice, the speaker engages the process of individualizing and, thereby, humanizing, her master. Immediately after this recognition, though, the speaker admits that “There were times I feared I understood/his language,” or, as students regularly point out, that the speaker fears identification and intimacy with her master and his culture.

And even though the speaker had “told myself that I would starve/before I took food from his hands,” when her master offers her the meat of an unborn fawn she eats it and finds it to be, “so tender/the bones like the stems of flower.” Students always pick up on these lines because they reference one of the most memorable moments in the captivity narrative. Rowlandson states that she would never eat the “filthy trash” offered by her captors, but a few weeks later finds the meat of a fawn “very good.” The next stanza of the poem intimates that Rowlandson had a sexual encounter with her master, after which the “birds mocked” her and the “shadows gaped and roared”—evidence that God was displeased. But as she becomes more accustomed to her captors’ culture, the speaker realizes that her master doesn’t notice these signs of a Puritan God’s displeasure, and eventually she too, figures that God might not punish her for whatever intimacy developed between her and her master.

When Erdrich’s Rowlandson confesses that “Rescued, I see no truth in things,” students see the connection to the end of Rowlandson’s captivity narrative when she admits, “I can remember the time, when I used to sleep quietly without workings in my thoughts, whole nights together: but now it is other wayes with me,” the only indication of uncertainty or doubt in Rowlandson’s account of her Indian captivity.  Students often conclude that Erdrich’s “misattibution” of Gyle’s words must have been intentional. By revealing the interchangeable nature of captivity texts, the poem is able to expose the instability of white cultural identity represented by the trope of captivity.

Alexie’s Malleable Mary Rowlandson
via Wikipedia

Alexie continues with Erdrich’s appropriation of Rowlandson’s captivity narrative by  responding to her “Captivity” poem with his own of the same title. Since the poem similarly opens with the same quote from Gyles but attributed to Rowlandson, it enters an intriguing intertextual conversation with Erdrich, Rowlandson, and even Gyles, which leads to rich classroom discussion. The speaker in Alexie’s prose poem tells and retells a variety of captivity scenarios that transport versions of Mary Rowlandson into present day reservation life. In the first stanza of Alexie’s poem, the daughter of a white Indian agent runs out of the reservation classroom, “waving her arms wildly at real and imagined enemies.” Echoing the same language as Erdich’s shared epigraph, the speaker wonders, “Was she afraid of loving us all?” Students often associate this line with the white fear of intimacy with a Native other embodied in Rowlandson’s narrative and revealed in Erdich’s poem. By maintaining Erdich’s original use of John Gyle’s words, Alexie offers commentary on the power and malleability of cultural tropes; the speaker at one point reminds the reader that “The best weapons are stories and every time the story is told, something changes. Every time the story is retold, something changes.” The poem moves Mary Rowlandson from the seventeenth century into the twentieth—she is the scared new white girl at a reservation school, the only survivor of a car crash on the reservation, a woman drinking coffee at the reservation 7-11. As students come to realize through class discussion, Alexie’s modern Mary Rowlandsons aren’t captive of a Native other, but rather of the pernicious limitations of the colonialist captivity trope.

In each of the poem’s fourteen stanzas, Alexie makes Rowlandson herself a cultural trope, a representation of white contradictory and ambivalent responses to and fear of Native people and cultures in Rowlandson’s day and our own. Some students even wonder if a “white boy…who spent the summer on the reservation” is a reference to John Gyles, which the students see as an intertextual clue that Erdrich and Alexie were both conscious of the misattribution. The speaker reports that “It was on July 4th that we kidnapped him and kept him captive in a chicken coop for hours.”Bringing so many iterations of Mary Rowlandson and even John Gyles types into the present day emphasizes the historical nimbleness of the colonialist captivity trope, but also the power to change it. Alexie’s speaker asks: “Was it 1676 or 1976 or 1776 or yesterday when the Indian held you tight in his dark arms and promised you nothing but the sound of his voice?” Linking these words to the epigraph, students wonder if that Native voice will ask the white captive to “love him.”

Implications and Resources
via Slabcity Gang on Flickr

When considering the goal of both poets to highlight the long-term impact of European colonization on Native cultures, the epigraphic quote shouldn’t be written off as a “misattribution” or poetic flaw. This limits students’ capacity to interpret the works. Rather the poems are commenting on the historical and on-going use of the captivity narrative to promote assumptions of white cultural superiority and the instabilities inherent in those assumptions. Teaching Erdrich’s and Alexie’s poems in conversation with Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative allows students to recognize the subversive re-salvaging of the colonialist trope of captivity. For many students, this diminishes some of the power of Rowlandson’s ethnocentric, anti-Indian rhetoric and they are able to engage more deeply with the narrative itself and consider its present-day implications.


Ben-Zvi, Yael. “Up and Down with Mary Rowlandson: Erdrich’s and Alexie’s Versions of ‘Captivity.’Studies in American Indian Literature, 2012.

Fast, Robin Riley. The Heart as a Drum: Continuance and Resistance in American Indian Poetry. U of Michigan P, 1999.



Randi Tanglen is associate professor of English and director of the Robert and Joyce Johnson Center for Faculty Development and Excellence in Teaching at Austin College in Sherman, Texas. She is currently co-editing a volume of essays on “Teaching Western American Literature.”

Waiting for Godot and “Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo”: Genre Pairings

“Bare” by John Benson

I watched Waiting for Godot in undergrad, I think. It was in a theater class. I think? I don’t have a vivid memory of it, but I do remember how it made me feel. I felt frustrated and trapped when watching it. I didn’t really “get” it, and I certainly did not want to read or see it again. I can’t remember the details and did not want to repeat the experience, but I never forgot how it made me feel.

At the beginning of this January more than ten years after first encountering Waiting for Godot, I was putting final touches on my syllabus for a course in modern drama. I had the feeling that something was missing from the syllabus, which I had crafted in an attempt to span the time period of the course while representing a diversity of voices. What was missing? Well, Waiting for Godot, of course. This realization gave me pause because I didn’t remember exactly having a pleasant time with it in my first encounter. Did I really want to teach Waiting for Godot? Would it be a slog for me and my students? I decided that it just might be, but that it would probably be worth it nonetheless given how much it is still referenced in our larger cultural sphere and how many of the playwrights coming after Beckett were influenced by his work. I put it on the syllabus, and it was worth doing so not only because of how it helped us read the rest of the plays on the syllabus, but also because it gave us a new light within which to read the works we had already encountered. In many ways, it became the center of our semester—the piece that illuminated the rest of the texts.

When I hesitated to put Beckett on the syllabus, I almost violated one of my own teaching rules. One of my rules for reading literature is that you don’t have to like the literature to have something to say about it.* People often think that professors teach literature that they love, and we do sometimes, certainly. However, I also think that liking or loving literature is not really the point in an individual reading of a text. I want my students to learn how to read texts; it doesn’t really matter if they like those texts or not. In fact, liking can often get in the way of critiquing a piece—the literary critic equivalent of kill your darlings—, and we are fundamentally in the literature classroom to analyze texts.

I ask my students to push away from their desire to like texts, but I do recognize that their aim in liking something is often predicated on how I introduce texts (especially with lower level students). One means of getting students into the discussion of a work is to ask them basic questions about their reactions to the text. What did you like about this? And what didn’t you like? Our reactions are the basis for how we interpret and analyze texts, so it is not wrong to ask students these things to get them into a close reading of a text. However, sometimes this approach narrows this response and teaches them that what is most important is if you liked a text or not. In my own teaching, I need to work on making it clear how we shifting from liking to analyzing when interpreting literature. This is important to me because as a literary critic, I fundamentally do not care if I like something that I am working on. And as someone who studies non-canonical texts historically and culturally, I’m not really looking for “good” works of art. I am asking what that work tells us about a moment in time, either within the literary tradition or in a wider cultural sphere. So, sometimes I give my students the, “It doesn’t matter if you like it speech” when they seem particularly unmotivated by a text.

When I was gearing up to teach Waiting for Godot, I had to give myself the “It doesn’t matter if you like it speech,” but I also had to examine why I didn’t like it. I didn’t want to teach Waiting for Godot because of how it made me feel. As an ambitious American who has absorbed the tenants of the American dream (even if I know better, it is still with me), I hate feeling stuck in one place. I want to go, to move forward. I want to know that my work is worth it. That I am working towards a larger goal. The feelings I had about Waiting for Godot are largely the point of Waiting for Godot. The play makes you feel the ennui of waiting—of asking for more—and knowing that not only will it not come but also that you will be in the same place tomorrow waiting and asking, asking and waiting.

Yes, Waiting for Godot gives me my own existential crisis. Once I had this realization, I was left with how to approach this with my students. Would they have a negative reaction to the play? And if so, would that reaction be insurmountable in terms of their desire to engage with the text and interpret it in class. My students this semester are advanced, so I don’t know if we would have struggled with the text regardless of how I approached it. I did find, though, that Susan Sontag’s “Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo” made for an excellent pairing with Waiting for Godot because it took the play that exists nowhere and showed how applicable it was to real experiences. Even if my students weren’t as skilled as they are, I imagine that this would be a very good way to begin a lesson on the play.

American Intellectual and Writer Susan Sontag

I stumbled upon “Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo” when I was looking for literary criticism to pair with Waiting for Godot. I wasn’t looking for a nonfiction text, but when I found it, I thought it might make for an insightful pairing with the play. As the title suggests, the article is about Sontag’s experience directing Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo while it was under siege in the 1990s. This pairing did several things for our class in terms of helping us understand the text. I’m going to outline a few important aspects in the following paragraphs.

The first thing it did was simply introduce the play and its themes. I had students say that they skimmed through the play while reading Sontag’s piece, so they could better understand her point of view on why she decided to stage the play in Sarajevo. Sontag also introduces details about the play that help the reader understand the way the plot of the play works. For example, she notes that because of choices she made in the casting and practical concerns of the theater in Sarajevo, such as the lack of electricity, she decided to only perform the first act of the play. Sontag writes that this decision would work because the second act of Waiting for Godot repeats much of the first act and, in fact, starts and ends in the same place as Act I. Sontag notes, “For this may be the only work in dramatic literature in which Act I is itself a complete play.” This is an interesting concept to ponder. How can half of a play be a complete play? If it is so, what does that mean about Act II? How do we approach reading Act II? Sontag’s words give students a heads up as to how to read the play. I imagine that my students might have been less frustrated by Waiting for Godot than I was because they understood that the meaning of the play was not as closely linked to the plot. They weren’t not as focused on what happens next because they already knew it was more of the same.

Interspersed throughout Sontag’s texts to mark the sections of her piece are quotes from the play. The first quote is “Nothing to be done,” which is the opening line of the play. Even without reading the play, students can think about this line. Why would you start a work of art with this sentiment? Isn’t any work of art about what is done, about what is coming in the work? If there is “nothing to be done,” then why are we reading this at all? The quote also applies to what Sontag was doing in Sarajevo. She had previously visited the city while it was under siege, and she felt she wanted to return, and that if she “went back,” she would find a way to “pitch in and do something.” Sontag got a lot of questions from media in Sarajevo and from friends and colleagues when she was home about what exactly she was doing there and what effect it had. The second paragraph of her essay answers this quite succinctly; she helped make something “that would only exist in Sarajevo, that would be made and consumed there.” Yes, that is a simple achievement, but it was still an achievement for the actors she worked with and the audience that came to see their production. Estragon and Vladimir’s games and skits in Waiting for Godot, seem much more futile, but they still help them cope and if not make sense of, then make use of their situation. The gift of expression is not the biggest gift in the world, but it can help people persist. One of the takeaways of Godot is persistence in the face of lack of clear answers about the future. Maybe Sontag just helped her actors mark time, but even those moments of reprieve “do something.”

via Adam Muszalski

Waiting for Godot could seem like it is about nothing. Nothing really happens. It ends where it starts and then starts over again. The dialogue is repetitive and hard to make sense of. What could this have to do with anything? Sontag’s piece helps us see that the questions of Waiting for Godot are the questions of humanity. No matter who we are or what we are doing on earth, humans ask themselves questions about their circumstances and situations and try to make sense of their world—even if no one ever gets closer to the truth. The play can ask us to think about these things in a disorientating way, but Sontag helped my students see themselves in the play because she helped them see themselves in the citizens of Sarajevo. One of the questions that people often asked Sontag about her experience was if Waiting for Godot was too depressing to put on in Sarajevo. Sontag replied that people didn’t just want a reprieve from their lives; she writes, “In Sarajevo, as anywhere else, there are more than a few people who feel strengthened and consoled by having their sense of reality affirmed and transfigured by art.” My students went into a reading of the play with those thoughts bouncing around in their heads, and I think it made them more receptive to the play and the lessons it has for its readers. Beckett’s lessons delivered in exchanges, such as, “I can’t go on like this/That’s what you think,” are not lessons in the traditional sense. He does not give us hope to end on, but he does give us two characters who have each other and who work together to fight off despair. That isn’t much, but it is something essentially human.

A lot more could be said about teaching Waiting for Godot, but I wanted to emphasize some of the prep work that went into my approach to the play. I would also love to hear about how people incorporate introductory material and critical essays into their lessons, especially with upper-level students. How much do you prepare your students? What do you let them figure out? How do you see literary criticism working in your classroom? I never really considered a pairing like the one I just described until I happened upon it. What are your best pairings?

*When thinking about liking literature, I looked back to see if I had written about this point in any other PALS post. I don’t think that I have. Perhaps it feels so familiar because I have thought about the point a lot and explained it to many students. However, that I can’t remember if I have written about this before while writing about a play about not remembering is not lost on me. Not for nothing, Waiting for Godot alters your thinking.